Self-aware leaders can spell the difference between a sustainable success and a toxic culture where miscommunication and poor performance are normal within an organisation. Many organisations labour under misguided or unexamined conceptions of leadership, miring their efforts in politics of fear and obscurity.
However, a self-aware leader is effective and authentic, honest about themselves and displays openness to others’ perspectives and perceptions about their personality and behaviour. They display a keen interest in learning, actively listening and demonstrating first-class attentiveness. These leaders are humble and grateful in their approach but not fearful of making tough decisions.
Self-aware leaders know how to build trust and are champions for transparency. They own up to mistakes and apologise with sincerity. These empathetic efforts make colleagues and employees feel valued. It encourages them to share insights that may prove highly valuable, rather than bottling up their opinions for fear of reprisal. In order to make strong decisions, a leader must gather and process all of the relevant information, therefore they must win over those around them by being as real as possible.
Such characteristics hold a particular utility for organisational effectiveness. In his book Focus, Daniel Goleman notes that "chief executives need self-awareness to assess their own strengths and weaknesses and so surround themselves with a team of people whose strengths in those core abilities complement their own". Goleman cites research conducted by Accenture on over 100 CEOs. In this study, executives named the most important skills for running a company, the most commonly reported being self-awareness.
The perils of dictatorship
When leadership fails to demonstrate an empathetic style, organisations suffer. There are many examples of dictatorial or detached leadership leading businesses into dissolution. Some, as in the case of Bernie Madoff, develop a high profile on account of such spectacular failures of leadership.
The inverse of empathy is isolation, being cut off from the diversity of perspectives and insights around you. Dictatorial leaders don’t perceive a need for other viewpoints, which results in isolation that can be accordingly desolate.
Without the sense of psychological safety and security promoted by empathetic leadership, individuals don’t feel comfortable sharing information that is necessary for organisational success. In certain cases this type of sharing is directly discouraged or rejected and important data goes uncaptured over fear of retribution. This type of leadership grows increasingly out of touch, a recipe for implosion.
Reaction versus response
The empathy that characterises an authentic leader shouldn’t be mistaken for softness. When difficult situations present themselves, self-aware leaders respond rather than react. Reactions may be purely emotional or ego-driven: a simple expression of anger, for example. A response follows from the particular details of the circumstance – it may mean seeking more information or opinions.
The more self-aware you are as a leader, the more you’ll understand your capabilities and those of others. Seeking out and understanding the perspectives of those you lead may increase capacities and drive your organisation toward success.
How does this affect business performance?
Self-aware leaders have a better understanding of themselves, their organisations' capacities and limitations and are better-informed about the context they operate in. This understanding gives them the data to make informed decisions and provide clearer, stronger leadership.
Genuine interest in the perspectives and interior lives of others in the business is the bedrock of an effective organisation.
Let’s consider several ways that self-aware leadership drives more effective businesses.
Businesses based on greater selfawareness foster more creativity and innovation. Chan Meng Tan, co-founder of Google, has founded a leadership institute (Search Inside Yourself) on the back of greater productivity, innovation and creativity as a result of self-awareness programmes at Google (see siyli.org).
Dominique Turpin, President of IMD, a leading executive development institute, names innovation as one of the key criteria for value creation and the future success of any organisation today.
Explaining the 'why'
Humans are tremendously complex, emotional beings. Recognition for tasks well done and a sense of progression keeps employees motivated. So, it comes as no surprise that this is the single most motivating factor in the workplace.
This universal tendency reveals an opportunity and a necessity for effective leaders. For team members, a sense of progress is often a matter of context. Why is a particular effort necessary to reach an important organisational goal? Why is that goal important for your success? This ability to create context for your team gives you the crucial power to cultivate emotional buy-in.
Individuals need to understand the 'why' in order to feel a focused sense of investment. Employees need to feel that they have an impact on the effort – even if they aren’t shaping the overall direction, they usually want to know that their perspective is important and their voice is being heard.
For example, a sales force under a dictatorial leader may not feel comfortable asking about larger organisational goals, and may not understand the need to pursue a particular type of client or focus on a product or service. This lack of comfort and information breeds a lack of effectiveness. Yet when a leader asks questions, explains reasoning and checks up on progress, this same sales force succeeds more sustainably. This often results in less drop-out and a better-motivated team, ultimately improving results over time.
Tyrannical styles may sometimes achieve short-term results, but they typically result in burn-out and lowered productivity over the long term. Acknowledging concerns of the team will get you more emotional buy-in, leading to much higher performance – particularly during the tough times.
A self-aware leader joins the willpower to see the big picture with the empathy and accessibility to connect with their people.
In order to understand an organisation’s capacities and limitations, an executive must understand employees’ differing needs.
There are four key ways effective executives create satisfied, motivated teams and sustainable businesses:
Live in the real world
At every organisational level, employees must balance their work with other daily challenges. Finding the work-life balance by maintaining relationships, supporting a family and keeping up with physical and emotional health can be difficult.
A leadership approach that acknowledges the ways these needs shape individuals is more conducive to effective communication and co-operation
The modern context
The demands on your team are different from 10 years ago – just as the demands on any leader have changed. In a more connected world, our attention is under constant demand.
If you’re in a leadership position and don’t understand the demands of the modern context, it’s going to be hard to steer a ship that travels in that context.
Foster psychological security
In order to work most effectively, a team must feel psychologically secure. They must feel that they can advance ideas and perspectives without fear or repercussions.
These open lines of communication are essential for leaders and organisations to gather relevant information and for individuals to remain satisfied and sustainably productive in their work.
Cultivate a self-aware culture
Psychological security, recognition of basic needs and the information barrage of modern life can’t all be addressed exclusively by an executive. Our sense of security, for example, may depend on multiple levels of hierarchy and the professional environment as a whole.
That means it’s important to thoughtfully shape the environment. What type of culture do you want to create? Self-aware leaders seek to cultivate a more self-aware culture, discouraging dictatorial styles and hiring for qualities such as innovation, creativity, empathy and curiosity. When you promote these values in the very fabric of an organisation, it grows progressively easier to help employees be more successful.
A 2014 study of 6,947 professionals at 486 companies found that on average, employees at low-performing companies were 79 per cent more likely to exhibit low self-awareness than those at higher-performing companies.*
In business and in sports, the Rugby World Cup-winning coach Sir Clive Woodward describes two types of individuals: rocks and sponges. Rocks are resistant to new information and set in their form. Sponges, by contrast, demonstrate a willingness to learn and adjust. According to Woodward, businesses need sponges to succeed.
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